AALL 2018 Recap: Impostor Syndrome: The Plague (or Good Fortune) of the Smart Professional

By Jennifer Allison, FCIL Librarian, Harvard Law School Library

This program was presented by Cynthia Bassett (University of Missouri), Kristyn Seo Taff (University of Minnesota), and Kenneth Hirsh (University of Cincinnati).


Image via Medium.com

People who suffer from “Impostor Syndrome” are generally “high achievers who are afraid to be unmasked.”  Can you relate?  You probably can if you can claim any of the following:

  1. You believe that successes you experience in your life are due to luck, timing, or computer error.
  2. You feel compelled to minimize your accomplishments by saying things like, “If I can do it, then anyone can.”
  3. You feel crushed when you receive constructive criticism.
  4. You tend to agonize over every single one of your “flaws.”
  5. You honestly think that it’s only a matter time that everyone will find out that you are a complete fraud.

This program sought to “throw some light” on the negative feelings that characterize Impostor Syndrome, because they “live and thrive in darkness.”

According to the literature, as many as 70% of people suffer from Impostor Syndrome, from creative types to successful business people.  Despite the common belief that it predominantly affects women, men also suffer from its effects.

To better illustrate how Impostor Syndrome manifests itself, the speakers presented the following five archetypal categories:

  • Perfectionist:
    Constantly worried about measuring up, a perfectionist is a micro-manager who has trouble delegating tasks, sets insanely high marks to live up, and ruminates over situations that are not 100% perfect.
  • Superman/Superwoman:
    This category includes people who, because they are terrified that they have not earned their position or title, always stay late at the office, feel stressed when they are not working, and tend to sacrifice their hobbies and passions.
  • Natural Genius:
    A natural genius is a straight-A, gold star student who was always praised for being “the smart one.”  These people want to do everything perfectly the first time, avoid challenges, and dislike having a mentor.
  • Rugged Individualist:
    People in this category don’t like to ask for help and want to accomplish everything on their own.
  • Expert:
    These are people who feel that they tricked their employers into hiring them – they never feel like they know enough, and they are constantly seeking additional training opportunities. They will never apply for a job unless they believe that they are 100% qualified for it – which they never really do.

Understanding how Impostor Syndrome impacts your life and behavior can be helpful to overcome its damaging effects, although it is important to not trend too far in the other direction.  The polar opposite of Impostor Syndrome is known as the Dunning-Kruger effect, in which incompetent people are extraordinarily confident, self-assured, and secure in their abilities, mainly because they fail to recognize their own incompetence.  A healthy, moderate dose of self-awareness can help in striking an appropriate balance between these two extremes.

Impostor Syndrome can affect anyone at any stage of his or her career and life, as the personal testimonials from each of the presenters illustrated.  Hirsh’s battle with Impostor Syndrome started when he became a law library director, and manifested itself as feeling that he had “lucked into his position.”  Both Seo Taff and Bassett spoke of their personal experience as law librarians who do not have law degrees.  Seo Taff, who has always been “a planner” and currently works as an access services librarian in an academic law library, has found herself on a career path that did not match her post-MLIS five-year plan, and is currently serving in her fourth professional position in three years, which appears to actually have worked out quite well for her.  Bassett, after eleven years in the profession, decided to go to law school because, even though she is a competent teacher of legal research, she “felt like a fraud” when the students asked her questions that she couldn’t answer.

So how can Impostor Syndrome be characterized as a provider of “good fortune?”  According to the presentation, it serves as an indicator that people are growing and moving into a space where they are becoming better versions of themselves.  This point had a profound impact on me personally.  I try to be an optimist, and I had to believe that Impostor Syndrome (which I have suffered from for years myself) is, in some way, also a force for good in my life.

So what are some strategies that we can use to overcome the negative effects of Impostor Syndrome?  The presenters offered the following suggestions:

  • Compare and despair – stop comparing yourself to others! That never accomplishes anything positive and just makes you unhappy.
  • Mindfulness – go outside and take a walk! Be aware of the feelings Impostor Syndrome awakens in you, and use them as a strategy to do something positive for yourself.
  • Invite it in – respond to feelings by accepting and not squelching them, and reframe the feelings so that they can have a positive impact.
  • Practice self-compassion, and treat yourself like you would treat a good friend.
  • Choose an affirmation – one of the panelists reported regularly repeating the phrase, “All is good in my world.”
  • Decide on your mission, and use your energy to further it, rather than undermine it.
  • Recast yourself – remove yourself from the situation and put your best friend in it instead. What would you say and do to provide comfort and encouragement?
  • Add sunlight – acknowledge the validity of your feelings.
  • Find a mentor – have someone you trust who you can talk to, and consider finding someone who is outside your organization and can be a bit more neutral.
  • Find your community, whether in affinity groups or in social media.

The program concluded with an exercise.  Everyone at each table wrote a statement about his or her experience with Impostor Syndrome on an index card, and then each person at the table read someone else’s card.  This was a really powerful experience, because it showed that none of us are alone in these feelings, no matter how much it seems like it.

After reflecting on the presentations and the exercise, I came up with a few more if my own strategies for battling the negative effects of Impostor Syndrome:

  • Focus on strengths rather than perceived weaknesses.
  • Minimize wasting time with pity parties.
  • Surround yourself with positive people.
  • Be brave – have the courage to eliminate self-doubt, negative self-talk, and feelings that you aren’t good enough. Even if you think they’re working for you, they’re not.
  • Fight perfectionism! Instead, get things done as well as you can, and then move on and enjoy your life.
  • Appreciate your intellect.

I have a feeling that Impostor Syndrome will always play a role in my own life.  However, after attending this program and journaling my thoughts about it, I feel a renewed sense of purpose and energy, and am looking forward to being better able to bolster myself when Impostor Syndrome reasserts itself in the future.

2 responses to “AALL 2018 Recap: Impostor Syndrome: The Plague (or Good Fortune) of the Smart Professional

  1. Pingback: Top 18 Posts of ’18 | DipLawMatic Dialogues

  2. Pingback: Getting to Ellen: A Trial Lawyer’s Gender Transition and the Lessons of Vulnerability and Self-Compassion

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